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Why does my soil moisture sensor read negative?

How is a negative number possible?

METER soil moisture sensors measure the dielectric constant of the substrate in which they are installed. They are designed to measure soil, which has a dielectric constant of around 5.

METERTEROS 12 soil moisture sensor

Water has a dielectric of approximately 80, so if we assume that a dry soil has a dielectric of 5 (VWC = 0.00 m3/m3), then changes to the bulk dielectric read by the soil moisture sensor will be attributable to changes in water content. If you read a METER sensor in air, which has a dielectric constant of 1, you will quite naturally get a negative number.   

Improving accuracy of dielectric soil moisture sensors

There are two common causes for negative readings on a METER soil moisture sensor:  

1) Poor contact with the soil resulting from improper installation or disturbance

Air gaps next to a sensor will contribute the lower dielectric of air to the measurement resulting in an underestimation of VWC. Air gaps can arise if enough care is not taken to pack soil around the sensor body to approximate native bulk density. Sensors that have been disturbed, such as having a cable tripped over, can also develop air gaps that can result in negative results in dry soils. (To reduce the possibility of air gaps when installing METER sensors, use the new TEROS borehole installation tool

2) A calibration that is inappropriate for the soil in which the sensor is installed

If the standard mineral calibration is used, an error of ~ 3-4% can be expected in METER sensor readings. Negative numbers can be observed in oven-dry soils (by definition a VWC of 0.0 m3/m3) down to ~ – 0.02 m3/m3 with no malfunction of the sensor. The dielectric constant of the soil is assumed to be 5 and this is a valid assumption in the majority of soils of primarily mineral composition. If your soil has a different dielectric constant, such as can occur in soils with high organic matter content, then the uncertainty in your measurements will increase. This is not a large problem because METER sensors can be calibrated to match a given soil with very little investment in resources.

Want more details?  

Watch our webinar titled Why Does My Sensor Read Negative below. This webinar is designed for those who use electromagnetic sensors (capacitance/TDR/FDR) to measure soil water content. Learn about the theory behind the measurements. Dr. Doug Cobos discusses:

  • What is volumetric water content?
  • Dielectric measurement theory basics
  • Dielectric mixing models
  • Why might a sensor read a negative VWC?
  • Can a sensor really have 2% VWC accuracy for all soils?
  • Sources of error in dielectric measurement methods
  • Improving accuracy of dielectric measurements

 
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